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Riot or rebellion? The debate over what to call the 1967 disorder continues

Was it a riot or a rebellion?

Or both?

Nearly five decades after the last fire was extinguished, the discussion continues over what to call the events in Detroit during July 1967.

The word “riot” – often spoken or written in the plural, as “the Detroit riots” – remains the most commonly used noun to describe the five days of unrest that left 43 dead, more than 1,000 injured and hundreds of buildings in flames. But “rebellion” surfaces frequently, especially among African Americans and others who discern a political nature in the disorder.

Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, professors at Michigan State University, write in their 2013 book, “Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide,” that the process of redefining the riot began shortly after it ended, with black militants who began calling the riot a rebellion of African Americans fighting against police brutality and discrimination in housing, jobs and education.

“The 1967 riot, or rebellion, as many blacks preferred to call it, was the result of decades of white institutionalized racism,” they write. “Few whites were willing or able to connect the historical and social causes to their tragic consequences. Most blacks had no trouble doing so.”

In a recent interview, Darden said understanding why many people consider 1967 a “rebellion” is important to racial healing. “There’s a need to educate the white population on this whole matter,” he said.

In a similar vein, Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, contends that whether violence is framed for the public as a riot (bad) or rebellion (admirable) has often turned on the color of the actors. Writing in the Huffington Post in 2014 on unrest in Ferguson.:

“If whites are involved, uprisings tend to be framed as rebellions. Flip through the index of any social studies text, and you'll find several of them: Bacon's Rebellion, Shays's Rebellion, Dorr's Rebellion. The list goes on.

“When blacks are involved, however, an uprising isn't a rebellion; it's a riot. Harlem, Watts, Chicago. Or, more recently, Ferguson.

“The point here is not that a riot and a rebellion are one and the same. They aren't. A rebellion is inherently meaningful. It connotes resistance to authority or control. A riot, by contrast, disturbs an otherwise peaceful society – it is an expression of power and energy rather than of simmering resentment and honest anger. After a riot, everyone goes home and sobers up.”

The 1967 Detroit disturbance is sometimes called a “race riot,” but experts say that’s inaccurate so far as it suggests fighting between the races.

There was almost no fighting among black and white residents in 1967. In fact, the first fatality in 1967 was a man with a Polish surname who was shot while looting a grocery store by the Arab-American owner.

By contrast, 1943 clashes in Detroit saw whites and blacks fighting each other in vicious hand-to-hand combat, and 34 people dying over two days. No one disputes that was a race riot.

Yet the clear dynamic in 1967 was black Detroiters rising up against police, firefighters, National Guard troops and merchants, the vast majority of them white. (Federal paratroopers in Detroit were integrated, but they arrived late in the disturbance and quickly pacified their sector of the city.)

Sidney Fine, the late University of Michigan history professor, noted that 56 percent of black Detroiters polled several months after the uprising chose to characterize the violence of 1967 as a “rebellion” or “revolution.” Fine, however, leaned toward calling the clashes a riot.

“Those involved in the disturbance in Detroit can hardly be described as having been engaged in ‘organized armed resistance to an established government,’ as rebellion is commonly defined,” Fine wrote in “Violence in the Motor City.”

The Kerner Commission, which investigated Detroit’s riot and other disturbances across the country in the 1960s, avoided the riot/rebellion question. It referred to the disturbances as “civil disorders” that were racial in character, but not interracial.

How do you believe the events of 1967 should be labeled?

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